Nichhe Bahadur Maharjan looks anxiously at the sky and then at his fields of tender green shoots at Chakupat. As we trudge through the slush, he casually mentions that Patan sewage water is preventing his paddy from drying out. Desperate to water his fields, Nichhe Bahadur simply allows sewage into his fields.
"We've used this whenever the rains are late," says the farmer. "What works for mula works for dhan." After overcoming initial squeamishness, Nichhe's logic seems sound: there is plenty of free fertiliser in the effluent. Which means he gets nutrient-rich irrigation-for free!
Traditionally 29 June is the date on which rice transplantation should happen. The land is prepared, water diverted to turn it into a muddy pond, the paddy seedlings are ready. While those in the hills and tarai use bulls and buffaloes to plough, jyapus in the Valley till every inch of their land by themselves. Seedlings are planted one at a time in a backbreaking process that looks deceptively easy.
Then farmers work from early morning to late in the evening, tending to the shoots until the monsoon begins. Had the monsoon arrived on time, the plants would be more than a foot tall by now and most of the weeds taken out.
Rice is not an easy crop to grow, as most farmers will attest to. It takes more than slipping seedlings into the mud. It needs so much water that only the monsoon can provide it. But when the rains are two weeks late as they are now, the farmers get worried. Already, frog weddings are taking place, in Nepalganj the women are dancing, dressed as men. The weather gods are not amused.
The dahi chiura feast on Tuesday this week was a little forced. It was hot and humid, and the day passed without rain. The Met Office was no help, it talked vaguely about isolated rain in parts of the kingdom. Weak rains will resume this weekend, but the full force of the monsoon is not expected for another week. This is an anxious time for farmers like Nichhe Bahadur. Even the sewage water is not enough to start planting since rice is a very water-intensive crop.
Nepalis are passionate about Oryza sativa, as paddy is known in Latin. Bhat is our staple diet without which most Nepalis feel a niggling sense of a meal being incomplete. Given Nepal's topography and altitude variation, the country has one of the widest varieties of rice in the world-some 1,700 traditional types suited to soils and microclimates from the tarai, hill valleys to the mountains. Rice grows in Jhapa at 80 metres above sea level, and it also grows at 2,700m in western Nepal, one of the highest altitudes that the crop is grown anywhere in the world.
With farmers concentrating on increasing harvests, many have switched to high-yield varieties of rice. Now indigenous rice types are in danger of extinction. Old timers talk of Bayarni, which was so fragrant "that it made you want to start chewing the plant right off the field". The aroma of the Kala Namak from Taulihawa was said to be a gift of the Buddha. Jetho Budho from Pokhara's Phewa lakeside, Dhangadi's Krishna Bhog and Biratnagar's Birenphul are just a few among at least 95 varieties of aromatic rice.
Jumla's Marshi Dhan is the world's highest growing rice. The Valley farmers grew Marchi, Taul, Pokhreli and Puwa. Diverse agro-ecological conditions and socio-cultural traditions of the farming communities made all this possible in the past. Nichhe himself switched from his traditional rice to Taichin years ago. "Taichin is more disease resistant and yields more," he explains.
Besides a late monsoon and new seeds, farmers also have to contend with cheap imported Indian rice. Then there is a possibility that genetically altered rice could come in and contaminate the local gene pool. In Kathmandu Valley itself, it is clear what the real threat is: creeping urbanisation is chewing up the once-emerald terraces of paddy fields and replacing it with concrete and brick.
The late monsoon could just be an angry god throwing a tantrum at our foolishness.